Focus on Flow Streamlines 5S

At the core of Lean Enterprise Transformation are the fundamental principles of customer focus, getting rid of the 7 wastes and creating flow. What follows is the alphabet soup of Lean tools in order to achieve this, including but not limited to 5S, TPM, 3P, QFD, 6, SMED, JIT, VSM, etc.
This alphabet soup can be bewildering, but fortunately most Lean practitioners agree on starting with 5S. Many companies start 5S programs by red tagging to get rid of unnecessary items (1st S – Sort), followed by setting things in the right place at point of use (2nd S – Straighten) and continue by cleaning and eliminating the source of filth (3rd S – Sweep). The 4th and 5th steps are Standardize and Self-Discipline, which create standards and sustain the well organized workplace.
When 5S is done without a focus on flow, you can actually create waste by doing work that is unnecessary. Take the example of an aerospace company who started their 5S program in the machine shop. Convinced that they were not ready for one-piece flow, the trained the machinists and inspectors in 5S and began red tagging and straightening. Although their intention was good, their Sorting was less than effective because they were doing batch and queue. They did not include in the “unnecessary items” category many of the large tables for storage of WIP, the personalized work benches, large tool boxes, and many pallet jacks from moving WIP from station to station. These things would be unnecessary after doing some simple things with flow. Instead, they mostly threw out trash, broken tools, etc.
In addition, the definition of “point of use” was very loose, since many tools were shared, the machine or workstation where a particular process was performed was not well defined (no cells were in place) and tools were often the property of individuals. Most tools placed at “point of use” were consequently four or five feet away at a shadow board instead of on or in the machine, literally inches away from the point of use.
A first attempt at flow would have identified the need for set up reduction (SMED). This would have made the need for point of use and dedicated tools much clearer. In addition, by reducing set up times and cutting down lot sizes, WIP would have been reduced drastically and the pallets, storage space, and inspection tables would have been red-tagged.
Although there is probably no harm in proceeding with a 5S program before attempting flow, the definitions of “unnecessary items” for Sorting and “point of use” for Straightening take on a much different meaning the closer to Lean (one-piece flow) you are.